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From Vietnam to Iraq: American War Resisters Seek Refuge in Canada

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In an unprecedented simulcast with Canadian Broadcasting’s morning show, “The Current,” Democracy Now! broadcasts live from Toronto, Canada. Decades after Vietnam War resisters fled to Canada to avoid the draft, American soldiers who are resisting the war in Iraq are now looking north of the border for a safe place to call home. We speak with two Iraq war resisters, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey who are seeking refugee status in Canada as conscientious objectors. And we speak with their lawyer, Jeffry House, who fled to Canada during the Vietnam war to resist the draft. [includes rush transcript]

For more than a hundred years, Canada has been a safe haven for those seeking refuge. The underground railway helped American slaves escape captivity and provided them with a new home. And, during the Vietnam war, the Canadian government welcomed draft resisters with open arms.

And now, American soldiers who are resisting the war in Iraq are looking north of the border for a safe place to call home. Two U.S. soldiers are seeking refugee status in Canada as conscientious objectors. Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey arrived in Ontario separately earlier this year hoping to make Canada their new home. And, in the coming months, the Immigration and Refugee board will decide whether they get to stay or if they have to go.

  • Jeremy Hinzman, U.S army conscientious objector seeking refugee status in Canada.
  • Brandon Hughey, U.S army conscientious objector seeking refugee status in Canada.
  • Jeffry House, lawyer for Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Hinsman and Brandon Huey join us now in CBC’s studios in Toronto. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! and “The Current.” It’s good to have you with us. We’re we’re also joined by your lawyer, Jeffrey House, who has his own story to tell from the Vietnam War. We welcome you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY HOUSE: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we start with Jeremy Hinsman, tell us your story.

JEREMY HINSMAN: Well, it’s — it’s rather long, but I enlisted in the Army in January of 2001, shortly after the Supreme Court awarded Bush the Presidency, and I did so for the same reasons that Brandon probably did. We both came from lower middle class backgrounds and were looking for a way to attend university without becoming saddled of debt. I was looking for structure and focus in my life. I wanted to do something more than make a buck. The Army definitely fit the bill. — in all of those regards.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think you would be doing in the Army?

JEREMY HINSMAN: Based on U.S. history, I thought I would be being deployed to places like Grenada or Panama or Honduras or whatever. And I wasn’t naive to what I was getting into. What I was really naive to, however, was that I really have a — and most other sane people really have — a really ingrown inhibition against taking human life. I mean there’s a lot of systematic processes and training that have to take place in order for you to overcome those barriers and kill. And no matter how hard I tried, and God knows I did, because I really enjoyed the Army and the people that I worked with, and I wanted to be a part of it. I couldn’t bring myself to be convinced that killing could ever be justified.

AMY GOODMAN: Brandon Huey, why did you go into the military?

BRANDON HUEY: My story basically starts off almost the same way. I enlisted when I was 17 years old with basically the promise of a way to better my life financially. Again, it is a way to get a college education without amassing thousands of dollars of debt.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you grow up?

BRANDON HUEY: I grew up in San Angelo, Texas. So, also when I signed the contract, I wasn’t naive to the fact that I could be deployed to fight in a war, but I did have this image growing up that I would be sort of — a good guy, if you will, and fighting for just causes and fighting to defend my country, and after I got out of basic training, and when I realized that basically the U.S. had attacked a country that was no threat to them, in an act of aggression, it shattered that myth, I guess you could say.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were you when you signed up?


AMY GOODMAN: How old are you, Jeremy?


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your decisions to leave your home, to leave your family, and friends. How did you decide to come to Canada?


JEREMY HINSMAN: I had originally applied for Conscientious Objector status, and it was turned down by the Army, on the grounds of a question that they’re not even supposed to ask in the process, which is if our camp in Kandahar, which is where I was when the hearing took place was attacked, would I help defend it, and I said, well, if your house is burglarized, would you try to restrain the burglar. Probably. But that doesn’t mean that you are going to use the same logic to commit premeditated first degree murder, which is essentially what we in the Infantry do on a collective level. You don’t simply wake up and say, “Hey, we’re going to do an ambush or a raid.” You start rehearsing that weeks beforehand on a white screen and then you have a terrain model, and then over and over again in the camp. So, anyway, my application was denied and I was faced with the proposition of going to Iraq. And based on all of the pretenses and rationale that we — we, the U.S., gave for invading, none of them held true. There were no weapons. There was no link between the secular Ba’athists and al Qaeda and fundamentalist Islamic terrorists and the notion of installing a puppet regime doesn’t sound like Democracy to me. I just couldn’t bring myself to kill or be killed for the sake of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have the same questions about Afghanistan?

JEREMY HINSMAN: Yeah. I mean, I — I was — I applied for Non-combatant status in the Army. I didn’t apply for total discharge. Of course, I questioned Afghanistan. 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The Wahabi brand of Islam is probably responsible for being the inspiration for a lot of the terrorism that we’re faced with now and I was like, “Why aren’t we there as opposed to Afghanistan? They can’t even aim a rocket that comes within three miles of our camp.” I was being processed as a — my C.O. claim was for non-combatant status and I was treated as such. I was fine with being there insofar as I was a non-combatant.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you leave the U.S. to come to Canada?

JEREMY HINSMAN: January 2 of this year.

AMY GOODMAN: Brandon, when did you leave?

BRANDON HUEY: I left in March of 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: What was that like, that day?

BRANDON HUEY: That day — I was relatively calm and collected, which a lot of people may not expect. I had thought about the decision for months, and I had talked to my superiors, my Sergeant Major, about why I had misgivings about the war. It came out of it for me, when I got out of basic training. It came out of a personal desire to know what I would be fighting for. If I was going overseas and point my rifle at someone and pull the trigger, I can’t speak for all soldiers, but I wanted to know what it would be for, and for the right reasons. And after looking into the Iraq War, I couldn’t find any justifiable basis for doing so, as Jeremy mentioned. No weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, and I didn’t want to kill anyone for lies, if you will.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you come into Canada?

BRANDON HUEY: I basically drove myself out of the base. Halfway to Canada from Ft. Hood, Texas, to Louisville, Kentucky. A peace activist out of Indianapolis drove me the rest of the way, and before we got up into Canada, he had connections with the Quaker community. I guess in the Toronto area. He had found people in St. Katherine’s that would be willing to take me in.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s where you are staying now?

BRANDON HUEY: For the time being. There’s actually — now that I have my work permit granted by the Canadian government. There’s actually plans for me to move into Toronto.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, the day you left?

JEREMY HINSMAN: It was pretty momentous decision, because whether — my wife and I had just discussed for months what we would do and it was either refuse orders and take whatever repercussions come from that, or leave. And I think I felt that I had done my part in trying to compromise with the Army in terms of the C.O. Application. And being faced with arbitrary military justice for refusing to take part in a bogus war, I — that’s not justice. So, we decided to come here. It was a pretty momentous decision, because whether we succeed or fail, the consequences are irrevocable — when my mom dies I can’t go back. Or I can’t experience the nice southern climate of Florida. It’s a totally different life altering decision, but given the circumstances, I felt we had no other choice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the situation that you face right now. Jeffrey House, let me bring you into this discussion. Talk about their legal status, Brandon and Jeremy’s here in Canada and the cases they face?

JEFFREY HOUSE: Yes. In the case of any person who leaves the U.S. Army and comes to Canada, to make a refugee claim, they are temporarily and conditionally here until a tribunal decides whether or not they have a well founded fear of persecution based on a number of factors including their political opinion. So it’s our task in the hearing to explain to the member of the refugee board, first of all, that the war in Iraq is illegal, at international law, secondly that no soldier should be forced to participate in a war which is illegal, and thirdly, that these two people and the other people who are making this sort of a claim face persecution, which means that they face an unjust prosecution. They would likely be incarcerated for their decision not to participate in the war. That is an eminently political decision that they’re taking. In my view, what would normally be a valid prosecution becomes persecution when the war itself violates international law, and norms. So, that’s their situation right now. I think that probably the first decision will be made within a year or so of when Jeremy came here, and then we’ll know more.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Hinsman, you were supposed to have a hearing next week, that’s right, but it has been postponed?


AMY GOODMAN: Why has it been postponed?

JEREMY HINSMAN: There are a number of factors. There was a scheduling conflict with a lawyer from the government and I think there’s a potential strike of Public Service Workers Alliance that assists the I.R.B. In our case.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey House, you also bring to this your own history. Going back to another war.

JEFFREY HOUSE: Vietnam. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you live in Canada right now?

JEFFREY HOUSE: I live in Canada because I came here in January of 1970, and at that time I was drafted. I had had a university exemption for a period of time. But once I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, I had to face the decision of whether I would go to Vietnam or at least enter into the U.S. Army, which was fighting in Vietnam, and really, it was a main theme of my university years. I would worry about this pretty well every day, what I would do. And finally, I took the decision that I couldn’t go to Vietnam, that it was essentially a civil war. It was also a bogus war. In the same way that Iraq is, I think. The reasons for going to war in Vietnam were highly exaggerated, and the American people were lied to. And so I felt that it would be wrong to kill people who are expelling foreigners from their country, and it would be wrong to be killed because of the lie that had been told publicly by the officials of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you return to the United States?

JEFFREY HOUSE: Yes. Those of us who were draft-dodgers were amnestied by President Carter. Those who were deserters — and I should say the amount of the total was something like 50,000 at that time — those who were deserters had to do some kind of alternative service. I understand that involved cleaning up in hospitals, something like that, to make up for their lost military days. So most people who were in my position can go back and many have gone back. There is a significant number of people who are still in Canada, who left the Army, deserted or didn’t report, in the late 60’s and 70’s

AMY GOODMAN: You both, Jeremy Hinsman and Brandon are much more lonely figures here. We’re not talking about tens of thousands of U.S. Soldiers who have come. Many speculate that you won’t get refugee status. What do you feel about that? What is your response? What would you do, then, Brandon?

BRANDON HUEY: Well, as far as what we would do then, if the initial hearing is unsuccessful? We hope to be able to utilize the appeals process, and by utilizing that, that can buy us more time, I guess you can say. But in the end, if that fails, all hope is not lost. We may be granted permission to stay based on the fact that we have a life established in Canada. If we have a job, possibly even going to school at the time, they may let us stay based on that.


JEREMY HINSMAN: I think it’s really important now to underscore why we’re here and that’s as refugee claimants. I hope as Brandon, that we’re able to stay, but I think that we really need to focus on this. Canada evaluates refugee claimants based on the Geneva Convention on Refugees. It says there that if a soldier refuses to participate in a war condemned by the international community and deemed illegal by the international community — which I think it has been. This fellow named Kofi Annan said so, and most of the world seems to agree — then being prosecuted for that amounts to persecution on the basis of political opinion. I don’t see any way around how we don’t stand solid on those grounds. So, based on that, I think that we have very sound cases for a refugee claim. I served for three years in the military. I tried all of my avenues of approach within the Army and I was unsuccessful. And I — Canada refused to participate in the war, and I don’t think they did that on a whim, being the U.S.’s biggest ally. I think they had sound reasons. They should perhaps be empathic to ours.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you care what happens if in the U.S. election and will that affect what happens you to here?

JEREMY HINSMAN: I think it would be inappropriate to say whether it would affect us, I don’t know. But of course, I care. I really — I mean, still love America. The course that our country is on is very frightening, and I hope that the tides so to say will change.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeremy Hinsman and Brandon Huey. They have both come to Canada. Brandon, you joined a Quaker family when you came here. Have their beliefs affected you. A long tradition of passive resistance?

BRANDON HUEY: I would say I haven’t been converted, I guess you could say but I definitely do find their beliefs admirable. Being from West Texas, I had never known any Quakers, never met any, so I didn’t really know anything about them. When I moved up here to St. Katherine’s. I have attended a few of their meetings. The fact that they can live their life opposed to all violence, and a policy of never turning away anyone in need, that really proved to me that there’s good people still left in this world, and there’s one of the things that’s given me hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you both been in touch with other U.S. Soldiers who are possibly thinking of doing what you have done?

BRANDON HUEY: I have been in touch with some U.S. Soldiers. Some have e-mailed me. Basically asking what they should do — it’s hard. When you get that question, you obviously don’t want to say, “Come right up,” because the implications of this decision are so huge, not being able to go back and see your family, and having an uncertain future. So, I think that everyone has to do what they feel to be right, and obviously, that — this isn’t a decision that they should exercise if they don’t sincerely believe in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey House, what are their chances?

JEFFREY HOUSE: I think they’re chances are quite good in the long run. The law is a little bit unclear in some of these areas, but Canada has regularly allowed people from other armies to claim that what goes on in those armies is not acceptable. For example, there’s a case in which the Federal Court said a person who didn’t want to attack Kuwait within Saddam Hussein’s Army was entirely justified because the attack on Kuwait was an aggressive war. So, in theory, they have an extremely good case. The difficulty is that there’s sometimes a climate of opinion which concludes that the American military is different in kind and even when they participate in an aggressive war somehow it’s different. So, overall, the law of soldiers becoming refugees is quite strongly in our favor. There’s a case called “Krotov” from England in which a Russian soldier said he didn’t want to participate in Chechnya. The Court, a very high court there in England held that if he is sincere about that, he may very well be a refugee. So, Canada has recognized that a lot of terrible things go on, that maybe people shouldn’t have to participate in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeffrey House, Brandon Huey and Jeremy Hinsman, I want to thank you very much for being with us as we speak you to from the Toronto studios of CBC’s “The Current.” we’re also here as Democracy Now!

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